gardeningHome Ec

Home Ec: How to Pick the Right Plant for Your Space

by Grace Bonney

Everyone has that one thing they splurge on when they need a little pick-me-up. For some it’s fancy coffee drinks, others run to makeup or new music. But for me, it’s plants. Whether I’m feeling happy or sad, I always, always want to bring home a new little plant to add to my collection. There’s something about having a living, growing thing in your home that feels so special and adds so much energy to your space. It’s taken me years to finally figure out how to care for plants and find the right space for them, but it’s a learning curve that has taught me so much about patience, timing and perseverance. Now I have a collection of at least 12 houseplants around me at all times, from tiny Muehlenbeckia vines (my favorite) to huge begonias that seem to have their own personalities. One of the hardest things I learned was how to find the right plant for the right space. Light, humidity and placement have so much to do with the success of a plant, so I decided to devote today’s Home Ec post to the basic placement of house plants. Whether you’re trying out your first succulent or growing a whole family of oxalis on the windowsill, this will help you get started on the right foot. Happy planting! xo, grace

*Click here to check out some of our favorite plants from homes over the years.


This post and the Home Ec section are brought to you by Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day. Visit the Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Home-Grown Inspiration section featuring 20 DIYs, including seven from Design*Sponge!

Light: The first step to successful gardening is determining what type of light your desired placement has, not the other way around. The easiest way is to buy a light meter and measure each space. But you can also try this (free) home method using a grey card or this one using your digital camera. Then make a note of what type of light you have where (and for how many hours a day).
Now that you've measured your room or windowsill's light, what do you do with that number? You use it to determine what sort of light you have. Light (and your light meter) will measure in a unit called "footcandles" or "fc." BRIGHT light is 400 to 800 fcs. MEDIUM light is between 250 to 400 fcs and low measures 50 to 250 fcs. Now, what can you grow in each type of light?
LOW LIGHT: Let's start with the one most of us have, low light. This is the light in most interior rooms and the light in most any room during the winter. It can be tough to work with, but there are many plants that love low light! Ferns, like these Boston Ferns, can work well in low light and have the sort of lushness so many of us crave in houseplants these days.
Other great LOW LIGHT plants are Cast Iron Plants (like the one on the credenza here), Bamboo, Peace Lily, Spider Plants and Pothos Vine (similar to the one hanging here).
MEDIUM LIGHT: This is my favorite type of light to work with because the plants tend to be hearty and not too fickle or delicate. Popular medium light plants include Begonias (like here, on the left), Elephant ear/Alocasia, Christmas Cactus, Falsa Aralia (a great tree-like plant), Grape Ivy (one of my favorites!) and other types of Ivy.
Now let's talk about BRIGHT LIGHT. If you have a lot of this, you're in luck. So many beautiful and striking plants thrive in bright light. Some of my favorites are: Cacti and other succulents, Agave, Myrtles (though they can be finicky!), Asparagus Ferns (they are so soft!) and Fig Trees (although you may need to move your fig to filtered light now and then if it gets burned).
Now, before you run off to buy your new plants, be sure to consider HUMIDITY. If you plant is drying up and the leaves are curling, it needs more water. Consider sitting your plant on a tray with pebbles and water, so the evaporating water can be pulled into the plant to keep it moist. *Succulents don't need much or any humidity, so be sure not to over water them!
Some quick tips about potting plants: Be sure your vessel is neither too big nor too small for the plant. Ask the store/nursery if you're unsure, but your plant shouldn't be loose in the vessel, nor should it be busting out at the seams. Be sure you plant in a vessel that has proper drainage. Mugs are cute, but they only work if they have a hole at the bottom for letting excess water out!
Don't be afraid to move or rotate your plants. Most people think they choose one spot and it's over, but I've found that sometimes plants thrive when they get a little rotation or different light now and then. You don't want to go adjusting your plant every day, but if your plants seem lackluster or uneven, give them a turn or try a new spot.

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  • YES!!!! THANK YOU!!!! I want to buy plants this weekend and this si going to be so helpful!!

  • Vessels that have drainage are great. But if you’re really in love with that mug that doesn’t have a hole, add a layer of gravel to the bottom before adding soil and the plant. The gravel will hold water and increase humidity, while keeping your plant’s roots up out of the puddle. I like to do this to succulents or cacti as they don’t need a lot of water anyways so I rarely have a problem with overwatering.

    • Uh no, Alison. Just no. Gravel will only move the wet rocks closer to the roots. No plant can survive without drainage, and gravel will do the opposite of help. Hole or nothing.

  • What useful tips and advice! I love plants, too, but one of my cats likes to nibble on certain types. After a stressful and expensive vet visit when she tasted a lily (very highly toxic to cats, but luckily she didn’t ingest enough to really hurt her), I learned to be a lot more careful about the plants I brought into the house. I refer to the ASPCA’s list of toxic/non-toxic plants often. Jen, you and other pet-owners might find it helpful: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants? I do still have some types that are toxic, but keeping them beyond reach, on high cabinets or in hanging baskets, seems to do the trick. Pets and plants can coexist, if you’re careful!

  • I want to follow-up a bit more specifically with Jen’s comment. Can you do a post on pet-safe plants? I always go look at the list from the SPCA before I buy a plant, but mostly that means that I have no plants at home and plenty of plants at work, since I have both a cat and a dog.

  • I didn’t know about the Martha’s light meter, thanks for sharing the tip!
    For fellow commenters with pets, I feel your need for plants! I used to have a cat and a lot of plants. but all beyond reach: hanging with hooks or up above tall bookcases. Nothing at ground floor. Hope it gives you some inspiration :)

  • Just want to second Rachel’s advice about checking that your plant isn’t poisonous to your cat…! I have found that, unfortunately, most plants are poisonous, so you need to be very careful! Same goes for cut flowers… I wish they came with “toxic to cats” stickers on them!!

  • Thanks for sharing – this is just what I needed. In my 20’s I was all about fake plants because I couldn’t be bothered. But suddenly in my 30’s I’m obsessed with plants. I’ve been working on an herb garden, but it’s half dead now. I need to get some low-light plants!

  • I love how you inspire us to look at the light in a space to see which plant could thrive in it. There is a delicate relationship with place that is often ignored. Thank you!

  • I got into home gardening in the past year or so, and even attempted tomatoes on my Brooklyn fire escape “balcony” last summer. They didn’t do so well but it was so much fun trying, and a great learning experience. Since then I have found and brought back to life two street-find pothos, and learned about taking cuttings to grow new plants.
    And then a few months ago I inherited a collection of 150-200 succulents. That really changed my gardening from a small pastime to a major hobby. I love having them around my home, but need to figure out a better storage method; they’re taking up all my tabletops! Any thoughts for that many plants?

    • Naomi

      Wow! That’s fantastic! You just inherited an insta-garden.

      Succulents are great for hanging plants because you don’t need to water them as often as others. Have you thought about perhaps doing tiered hangers that take up less space? Here are three easy DIY versions.


  • Grace,

    I love the second DIY! That would work great with most of the succulents since they grow so low to the ground, and I could fit a bunch vertically.

    Some of them are prized varieties and custom hybrids, it’s very very cool. Can’t wait till they start flowering and I can play around with making my own hybrids!